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Take a Trip: Visit Lewes on Bonfire Night

10 October 2019 | Katie Da Cunha Lewin

Every year on the 5th of November, we celebrate Bonfire Night with fireworks displays and perhaps a hot toddy. We may all be familiar with the story of Guy Fawkes, but it’s worth exploring the history a little more not just for the event itself, but what happened after… 

In 1605 a group of English Catholics conspired to remove King James I and replace him with a Catholic head of state. The group had stashed a large reserve of gunpowder which they had planned to use to blow up parliament on its day of opening, the 5th of November, hence its name ‘The Gunpower Plot.’ After the plot was discovered and the culprits tried and hanged, James I announced that the 5th of November was to become a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the foiling of the plot. Though we can’t be sure if it was celebrated every year since then, Bonfire Night has a long history in the UK. 
 
In Lewes, the events of the Bonfire Night are not just about the Gunpowder Plot, but to also commemorate a group of 17 Protestants who were burned at the stake between 1555 and 1557. This group, known as the Lewes Matyrs, were killed during the reign of Mary I, who was known as ‘Bloody Mary’ due to her aim of restoring Roman Catholicism in the country. There are several memorials throughout Sussex honouring those 17. 


Image credit: Daibhidh Moireach via Flickr 
 
Lewes Bonfire is the biggest celebration of Bonfire Night in the country and attracts thousands of visitors each year. The event is not, as the name would suggest, simply just a bonfire, but is actually made up of several different parts, including processions, effigy burning and bonfire displays. There are seven different bonfire societies, some founded in the 19th century, whilst others founded or re-founded more recently in the last 20 years. Each society has their own procession in a different part of town and end up in different areas to have a bonfire and firework display. Some societies, such as Nevill Juvenile Bonfire Society, are more family orientated, whilst societies such as Cliffe, Commercial Square and Lewes Borough are more traditional in their processions and effigies. All these groups have their procession of the same day, apart from Nevill Juvenile who hold it on the Saturday a fortnight before the 5th. 

All the groups dress up in costume, and in general, Lewes is awash with a whole array of colourful outfits and themed processions. A key part of the Lewes Bonfire is the burning of an effigy, normally of a hated political figure. There has been a whole array of effigies in recent years, such as David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. These figures join the traditional Guy Fawkes on the bonfire. 
 
Safety is paramount during the night’s festivities and Lewes and Eastbourne council make some suggestions for keeping safe during the night. But the main thing is to have fun and enjoy the fire and fireworks. This noisy, lively and unusual evening is not one to be missed!
 
You can buy tickets for each separate bonfire from shops or independent retailers in Lewes, from Lewes Bonfire Websites or from society websites
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